“Boys will be boys” is a neat illustration of how many men deny responsibility for the unpleasant behaviour they exhibit towards women, how they minimise it and how they pass any blame or fault onto their targets for not having a sense of humour, or not being able to take a joke.
I read the story of the bullying and harassment of DeeAnn Fitzpatrick by her male colleagues with a sinking heart and growing anger. The culture in her workplace where her colleagues were able to enact their misogyny and racism in bullying her without being held to account is beyond awful, but as I read further down the story I realised that it’s just not that uncommon.
The main stand out from the piece was the picture of DeeAnn gagged and taped into an office chair. It provoked quite a visceral reaction in everyone I discussed it with.
I mean how could it not? It’s a woman who has been overpowered by men and restrained, allegedly as a result to her whistleblowing. Her complaint to her manager was met with “I’m sure they meant no harm and that was the boys just being boys”. I am at a loss to understand how anyone could see a woman being restrained like this – and she wouldn’t have been able to free herself – as just boys being boys.
This behaviour, and the excuses for this behaviour has to stop. The use of the word “banter” to undermine vicious, unnecessary bullying has to stop. The “banter” has to stop. While they continue they show women daily that we have something to fear from men, and they highlight why women still require women only spaces – not just for safety, privacy and dignity but for a respite from the male gaze and male behaviours.
I’m sure many people will see this as a one-off, something that nobody they know would ever do, or that it’s the pinnacle of workplace pranks gone wrong, that Not All Men Are Like That. I am telling you it isn’t. Every woman I ask has a story about a man behaving inappropriately – physically, sexually, verbally towards her at work and that any complaints she makes are brushed aside. The humiliation and the fear stays with us forever. I did a quick poll among ManFriday types and have some of their stories to share (anonymously so as not to shame the guilty in their stories), but I’ll start with mine.
The photograph of DeeAnn taped into a chair frightened me because it happened to me too. I was a 16 year old Saturday girl working in a mobile phone shop where all the other staff were men. One day I was sitting in the office as we had no customers and one of them came up behind me with a roll of tape and taped my torso/upper arms to the back of my chair and continued downwards. My arms were taped, my legs were taped and I couldn’t get out of it without help. Anything could have happened and to be reminded of how vulnerable we are around men was terrifying. As it was, because it was “fun bantz” they wheeled me out onto the street and left me there where not a single person helped me. When I complained afterwards I was told I didn’t have a sense of humour.
M was a waitress in her late teens and was told by management to expect that the customers would grope them, and if they were groped to be careful to avoid dropping hot food on these men. No way of reporting the abuse, no support. When M complained that someone put their hand up her skirt she was told to put up and shut up or to go.
B tells of a student nurse colleague having her dress pulled open whilst on the ward, by a senior male staff nurse. He exposed her breasts to everyone there “for a joke”. She also tells of a male charge nurse slapping her bottom as a way of introducing himself to her. She says these incidents aren’t “terribly terrible” but they were commonplace and deeply humiliating.
A was cornered in an isolated room by a male colleague when she was 16. He pinned her to the ground and sexually assaulted her. Her manager did nothing when she complained.
H had her boss (who was twice her age) make a pass at her one night which she politely rebutted. She was not given a single shift afterwards and when she complained to management was ignored.
F told us about the “manly bantering” that had gone on where she worked. She was told her backside is her best side, subjected to conversations in meetings which included references to “dead hookers” and homophobic slurs. On speaking to senior staff she was told “Oh X is just a bit of an old school sexist” as if that meant his behaviour was OK and F was the one with the issue.
R, as an 18 year old apprentice, used to have to fight off one of her fellow apprentices, who would bend her over the workbench and dry hump her “for bantz”.
U explains that she would get dirty phone messages left on her desk voicemail by a male member of the maintenance team. Another member of the maintenance team helpfully told her that her breasts were a topic of conversation in that team.
J tells of when she was temping at the age of 18, when a much older man cornered her in a lift, grabbed her breasts and tried to kiss her. When she complained she was told she needed to learn how to take a joke.
L was pinned to the ground by a group of boys she was having a snowball fight with at college. They opened her clothing and rubbed snow all over her breasts. Her complaints to the college were ignored.
J was asked to help cash up in her manager’s office by the deputy manager of her first job. He spent the duration of them counting edging closer and closer to her until he had her squashed right up against the wall, at which point a senior staff member entered the office and told her to leave. She describes what happened as creepy and uncomfortable.
And we’ve all been expected to make the tea in meetings because we’re women, in spite of often being the most senior person there.
Most of the incidents noted above are from when we first started in the workplace. They happen to remind us where we sit in the pecking order and the dismissal of our complaints reinforces this. We are shown, and reminded, fairly early on in our working lives who has power and who is powerless.
This, for me, is what MeToo is about. Critics claim that we’re trivialising serious sexual assault by talking about these times but they miss the point. All the men in these stories see women as objects, or lesser people than them. They all felt entitled to behave this way towards us and dismiss our complaints or reactions. They all violated our boundaries. They think in the same way as men who commit serious sexual assaults and rapes, they just pretend that they’re better than them because they haven’t been violent.
Men need to be held accountable for the way they behave towards women. They need to hold themselves accountable. They know that the behaviour they exhibit isn’t wanted now (and let’s face it, they’ve always known that but they can’t pretend anymore). This needs to stop.
Until such time as we have men behaving properly towards women at all times we need to maintain our safe spaces. Until we are truly treated as equals we need to maintain our safe spaces. People seeking to remove these from us are removing a haven from those who really need it. There is so much focus on how the criminal justice system will kick into gear if someone is assaulted when our same sex spaces become open to all. In most of these instances above, however, no action would be taken – and all women need the space to be free from this constant harassment.